On the Origin of Genre

February 8, 2015

On Saturday I spent 6 hours in a Skype call with 6 other people. When we were finished we looked back in retrospect and realized that we should have probably held individual sessions, two on one, rather than try to get done what we had to all at once in one big shouty clusterfuck. So advice for the future; I do not recommend walking 5 people who have never played any kind of D20 game before through their first character sheet simultaneously. And I especially don’t recommend doing it online, where you can’t hover over peoples’ shoulders and make sure that they’re putting everything in the correct boxes, rolling the right dice or even reading from the right bloody PHB edition*.

On Friday I spent a couple of hours looking over the shoulders of a group of friends who are designing their own d20 RPG as they calculated which dice rolls would give players the most fair chance at a number of given tasks.

Spending a weekend tit deep in d20 theory gets you to appreciate just how widespread the influence of old tabletop games are in video games. It’s the opposite of surprising, really. The same people who programmed the first computer based RPGs were those who sat down every week to play pen and paper games. Such was the nature of the 1980’s nerd culture. And so when these games were created in the early 80’s what better to base mechanics off of than an already tried and popular system.

Baldur’s Gate, one of the most defining RPGs of the late 90’s, was directly based on the Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition rules, as well as being set in an already established D&D campaign setting. Baldur’s Gate players could choose from all of the classes outlined in the 2e base materials and assigned ability scores in much the same way you would if you were filling out an actual character sheet. Although Baldur’s Gate was directly based off of D&D, the mechanics that it had adapted from pen and paper to video games went on to be used and adapted in future games, both RPGs and in other genres.

Baldur’s Gate wasn’t the first RPG to borrow elements from tabletop (it came about 10 years too late for that), but it was wildly influential due to its popularity.

RPGs have been moving away from these old tropes lately. For the most part the games’ difficulties’ no longer revolve around the player being able to strategize and calculate the optimum character builds and tactics but instead the focus is being put on the player’s reaction speed and accuracy. Compare the systems of Skyrim and Morrowind. Skyrim‘s character progression system was much simpler compared to its predecessor but the combat system determined whether an attack hit or miss through whether or not the model of the player’s weapon or projectile collided with that of the enemy. In comparison Morrowind had a separate calculation for whether or not an attack hit, based on the characters skill with that weapon type, resulting in a system where low level players could hit an enemy with perfect accuracy but the game would still have to make a check as to whether or not it hit in a similar manner to D&D. Even the turn-based Bravely Default had a mechanic named Bravely Second where a player could hit the Select button at any time during a battle and gain an extra turn. A clutch Bravely Second + Rejuvenation could be the difference between killing a boss or a TPK. Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t much different and players who could switch between Paradigms (the game’s class system) faster would find the game easier than those who couldn’t.

Despite this move towards more fast-paced, actiony combat and simpler character progression, there’s zero doubt that the RPG as a video game genre borrowed a huge number of mechanics from the traditional pen and paper RPG. Even games in other genres have taken influence from them, just as RPGs are now taking from action games.

The RPG, probably my favorite genre of video games, was the direct product of tabletop players sitting down and deciding that their favorite game ought to be able to be played digitally, with the role of DM being shared between the game’s designers and the player’s processor. And to be honest that’s pretty neat. No wait, that’s really cool.

I was playing video games a long time before I joined my first Dungeons & Dragon group. It’s an interesting and valuable experience to look back at what influenced the gameplay that I’ve pretty much been taking for granted for my entire gaming career.

Anyway, that’s today’s word vomit. I started replaying Dragon Age: Origins the other day as well as helping my friends write up their first character sheets and wanted to smash something out about my thought’s connecting the two.

*Spoiler: Even though I offered up a very questionably legal .pdf copy of the 3.5 PHB, it turns out that none of them wanted to put the time into downloading and skimming through any part of it anyway. Don’t commit minor crimes for those who wont appreciate it, children.